The Copts Will Fight
But they won’t win.
5:29 PM, Oct 12, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
This past Sunday night, the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak took another wrong turn when the same army once believed to be “hand in hand” with the people killed 27 Coptic Christians in Cairo and wounded hundreds of others. The Copts were marching toward Egyptian state television in the Maspero area to demand that the ruling authorities fulfill their obligations to the Christian minority. After the marchers were stoned by Muslim bystanders during their march, state security and the military attempted to put down the demonstration. When the authorities started to beat the protesters, the Copts fought back. The police opened fire, killing several Copts as others were crushed when soldiers turned their military vehicles into the crowds, leaving a trail of unspeakable gore in their wake.
This most recent expression of violence against the Copts will resonate for some time to come—not least because it appears that some local Muslim bystanders cheered on the army while others took an active role in the violence. (Here’s a video of a soldier who boasts of having shot a Copt in the chest and is cheered on by a crowd.) Egyptian state television called on “loyal Egyptians”—i.e. Muslims—to come to the streets to protect the army from the Copts, which evidently did draw many, including Salafists, to the incident.
Sunday night’s bloodshed is further evidence that, even if the army was the agent of violence, anti-Copt sentiment is widespread. The Sunday march was preceded by a smaller demonstration last week when Copts protested an attack on a church in Edfu, almost 500 miles south of the Egyptian capital, and demanded that the Muslim gangs responsible for the destruction of the church be brought to justice. The army and security forces beat Copt protesters when they marched last week, too, as this video shows. Perhaps what’s most noteworthy in this clip is that after the first few blows the officer in charge, in a red beret, seems to be trying to stop his troops from striking further. At one point the officer even hits one of the soldiers. This suggests that while Egypt’s ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is intent on keeping the streets quiet and free of Copt activists, it is unlikely they ordered the army to kill civilians. Rather, it seems that individual soldiers acted on their own.
“There’s this idea that Egypt’s army is a professional force,” says Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, and a senior partner at the Cairo-based Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth. “This is a mistake.”
We’re sitting in a café in Georgetown along with a colleague of his from EULY, Mina Rezkalla, visiting from Cairo whose family lives in the Shubra district where Sunday’s march originated. Two of Rezkalla’s friends were killed, including a young man recently engaged to be married. He shows me the engagement photo of his friend and his fiancée, and then another of the same woman sobbing over her fiancé’s mutilated corpse.
“The officers are professional,” says Tadros, “and there are professional units, like Special Forces, but these people were regular conscripts.” Every Egyptian male, unless he is the family’s only son, is required to serve in the military, which means that the army draws from a 90 percent Muslim majority across the general population that is typically hostile to Copts. “The soldiers are acting just like they would back in their village if they got into a fight with Copts,” says Tadros. “These officers have lost control of their soldiers.”